Law and Disorder: the Chaotic Birth of the NYPD, by Bruce Chadwick (St. Martin’s Press, 368 pp., $28.99)

Bruce Chadwick begins his fascinating, data-packed history of “law and disorder” in mid-nineteenth century New York City with a gripping account of the anti-abolitionist riot of 1834. A mix-up over the use of a chapel on Chatham Street for a gathering of black leaders and abolitionists led to an all-out attack by several hundred anti-abolitionists. Slavery was legal in New York State until 1827, and thousands of city residents had been sorry to see it go. The abolitionists, however, gave no ground.

For four days, rioters swept back and forth across the city, which at that time stretched from the Battery to 14th Street. Seven churches and a school for black children were burned. The Bowery Theater was heavily damaged. Businesses and houses went up in flames, and the homes of prominent abolitionist leaders were sacked and looted.

In the midst of the furious mob, vainly attempting to bring the rampage under control, was the city’s feeble company of constables. Untrained, unarmed, and unpaid, these political appointees in plainclothes worked for rewards and bonuses, and for the bribes they received from the city’s underworld; some constables even served as procurers in the city’s flesh trade. These amateur officers were good at making money and many lived in style, but they were not good at enforcing the law. Mayor Cornelius Lawrence summoned the state militia, which arrived on horseback. The militiamen warned the mob to disperse, then opened fire: several people were killed and dozens wounded, ending the riot.

For the City of New York, however, an unprecedented wave of crime and chaos had just begun. In 1835, a close mayoral election sent political gangs storming down Broadway. In 1837, a mob protesting reports of profiteering threw 500 barrels of flour into the street. Almost any rabble-rousing tale of injustice could bring hordes of irate “rogues and rascals” streaming through Manhattan. Rumors that an English actor had insulted America filled the streets with incensed New Yorkers, for whom rioting had become a patriotic duty.

In the 1820s, New York’s newspapers turned up their noses at graphic stories of crime, sin, and degradation. All that changed with the arrival of Scottish immigrant James Gordon Bennett and his penny newspaper, the New York Herald. Bennett seized on the gruesome ax murder of a prostitute to introduce a new form of crusading journalism. Instead of brief news items, Bennett published lengthy interviews with hookers and madams, scandalizing respectable New Yorkers—and tripling the Herald’s circulation. Following Bennett’s lead, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and nine other dailies joined the battle for newsstand dominance. Not unlike their modern tabloid descendants, they all claimed to be shocked by the lurid crime stories of rape and robbery that were making them rich, and they all called for a larger, better-trained police force.

But the need for cops outpaced the supply. About 70 percent of immigrants to America landed in New York. Some 30,000 a year were arriving from Ireland alone, causing a dramatic shift in religious and cultural demographics that soon raised Catholic-Protestant tensions to a boiling point. Churches were burned, and the home of Bishop John Hughes was partly destroyed by an anti-Catholic mob. Ethnic and religious firebrands egged the rioters on.

The new immigrants crowded into squalid and dangerous wards like Five Points, a notorious intersection of five streets where Columbus Park stands in Chinatown today. So infamous was this warren of alleys and passageways that, in 1842, a darkly curious Charles Dickens insisted on seeing the wicked slum for himself.  

More police, better training, better weapons (such as Samuel Colt’s new revolver), and putting the cops into uniform had little effect on the crime rate. Rioters continued to rule the streets and murders went unsolved. Hotheads and agitators still found it easy to manipulate volatile crowds, and the state militia still replied in kind. When a longstanding feud between two actors brought 10,000 demonstrators to the area around the old Astor Opera House at Lafayette and East 8th Streets, the police lost control. The militia was called. Warning shots were fired. Rocks and bottles flew. A volley was then aimed directly into the crowd. At least 25 people were killed, and a hundred injured. When the anti-draft riots swept the city 14 years later, President Lincoln had to order federal troops to quell the violence.

Nothing changed because real change was an almost impossible task. Neither rioters nor reformers nor editors nor politicians nor preachers nor the new and improved police department could defuse the combustible qualities of life in New York. The island city, with only one-quarter the population it has today, was home to 600 brothels, geared to every imaginable inclination, 4,500 bars, and at least 500 casinos and gaming dens. The numbers racket was an important part of daily life. Street gangs defended their turf with knives and clubs. Even honest patrolmen could not enforce the law and end disorder.

In 1857, the state legislature, in an effort to bypass City Hall, created a seven-man commission to run a new Metropolitan Police District, which included Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Westchester. Mayor Fernando Wood and his Tammany Hall allies were enraged. They ordered the municipal police to ignore the new commissioners, who responded by hiring 800 new officers. Suddenly, New York had two police departments.

“Suspects arrested by one force were freed by the other,” writes Chadwick. “One force would refuse to conduct sweeps ordered by the mayor, but the other force would undertake them. Captains battled over who had control of precinct houses and patrols on the streets. Criminals did not know whom to fear, whom to obey or whom to bribe. Chaos reigned.”

Eventually, the 7th Regiment of the state militia surrounded City Hall. Fernando Wood was arrested, taken before a judge friendly to Tammany Hall, and released. When state courts approved the Metropolitan Police District on July 3, the old cops were fired. The next day, the Dead Rabbits, the city’s most powerful Irish street gang, took advantage of the national holiday and the inexperience of the new Metropolitan cops to launch an attack on the Bowery Boys, their nativist rivals. Two days of deadly brawls ensued. Out came the militia again, and the rioters slipped away. The city settled back to a familiar routine. “The new Metropolitan police did not do much more than the old Municipal force,” Chadwick notes. Crime, in fact, was worse than ever.

Law and Disorder, with its painstaking research and comprehensive bibliography, will be a prime source for students of New York City history for generations to come. It is an indispensable book for anyone seeking to understand the hard realities of life in nineteenth-century New York.

Chadwick concludes that the eventual decline of the crime rate in the late 1870s was the result of a strong police department and “tougher police work.” But crime is not purely a function of the presence of law enforcement officers. In his 1970 book, The New York Police, James F. Richardson cites an English visitor to Manhattan in 1817 who was startled to see merchants leaving “large stocks of goods in the street without taking any precautions against theft.” Only in a safe city could such liberties be possible. Richardson also mentions a New Yorker who wrote to his daughter in 1819 about a recent murder. “For the honor of our city, I believe this to be the first fatal assault that has ever occurred in it” (it wasn’t). In the early 1820s another visitor from Britain wrote that public order and safety in New York “compares favorably with any English city.”

However, as crime increased sharply in the in the late 1820s, New York’s Committee of Public Safety observed that the city was “so long exempt from the horrors of midnight robbery that it is feared the citizens have relaxed in those precautions necessary for the preservation of their property, and without which, any efforts made by this Board must be ineffectual.” In other words, people who had lived in safety for years had forgotten how to defend themselves against crime and disorder.

In 1963, when someone broke into my car on Waverly Place, it was not only the first time I’d been a crime victim; it was also the first time that I’d ever witnessed a crime scene, and I grew up in a housing project. Post-World War II America was, overwhelmingly, a safe society. But it all went away in an eyeblink. In 1966, an NYPD detective told me that he had no interest in the fingerprints of the burglar who had broken into my apartment. The precinct was overwhelmed with crime reports. “Buy stronger locks,” he advised. Over the next 33 years, though New York City had three of the 25 largest police departments (NYPD, Transit, and Housing) in the country, more than 50,000 people would be murdered in Gotham.

Then, in the mid-1990s, as the NYPD adopted innovative new methods under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s first police chief, William J. Bratton, crime began subsiding—and it has kept doing so, incredibly, ever since. Though Broken Windows policing has its critics, New York’s crime drop is one of the great sustained successes of any American city. With crime so low, it’s not surprising that longtime New Yorkers attest to much stronger civility on the streets than existed in the city 30 years ago.

There’s an old saying in criminal-justice circles: crime cannot be reduced below a level that the community is willing to accept. Crime goes down, in other words, because people get tired of it and decide to do something about it (like electing different public officials). It’s at that point—whether we’re talking about 1817 or 2017—that police departments make a difference.

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